A 'High Fidelity' to his own vision

Director Stephen Frears, in a quintessentially British move, opens a recent phone conversation with an apology.

He's lost his glasses, and is frantically retracing his steps to locate them. So please forgive any interruptions or distractions.

It's an ironic problem for the owner of one of the most distinctive visions in cinema. His new film "Dirty Pretty Things," which opened strongly in limited release and goes nationwide Friday (Aug.1), is the latest addition to a celebrated body of movies made over more than two decades that includes "High Fidelity," "The Grifters," and "Dangerous Liaisons." Although it lacks traditional summer-movie pyrotechnics, his critically acclaimed new picture may be poised to become an art-house hit.

"Dirty Pretty Things" is the story of Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Nigerian doctor who, running from his past, is now an illegal immigrant in London who moonlights as a cab driver by day and hotel porter by night.

In the wee hours when Okwe watches the hotel, those few guests not sleeping are engaging in one criminal activity or another, from prostitution to operating a black market for human organs. Because Okwe and his immigrant friends are also wanted by the authorities, they feel powerless to stop the shady underworld dealings that surround them.

Costarring French actress Audrey Tatou of "Amélie" in her first English-speaking role (she plays a Turkish maid who befriends Okwe), the film dramatizes the hardships immigrants face from both sides of the law. At the same time, Frears presents this societal exposé like a Hitchcockian thriller, mixing food for thought with popcorn-movie excitement.

"I grew up with films that were both intelligent and entertaining," says Frears, who cites the classic movie "The Third Man" as an influence. "It's a combination that I found irresistible."

Curiously, the film was written by Steve Knight, who helped create the TV game show "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" and has done very little screenwriting. Frears worked with Mr. Knight to focus the script, which initially, he says, "got distracted and went down a road that I thought was not relevant to what we were trying to do.

"But I really thought the script made good observations. Some people just have good ideas."

"Dirty Pretty Things" was shot in Frears's hometown of London, his first onscreen foray there since 1985's "My Beautiful Laundrette." Frears calls London "a very difficult city to film in. You're made to feel very unwelcome. But what was striking about the script was what a modern account of London it was. Nobody had tackled like this the sort of change that had taken place over the last 10 years or so. It's a very multicultural city." (Perhaps the Notting Hill resident missed Zadie Smith's epic "White Teeth?")

After directing several films in Hollywood, such as "High Fidelity" with John Cusack and "The High-Lo Country," Frears enjoyed the chance to work with European actors again. He calls Tatou, for example, a "brilliant actress," and also cites the work of costar Sergi López, who most recently gained acclaim as the villain in the 2000 French thriller "With a Friend Like Harry."

The director considered casting an African-American for the lead role of Okwe, which likely would have sold more tickets, but Frears says he's happy with his choice of Ejiofor, an African-born British actor who anchors the film.

Frears began working in television 25 years ago, before graduating to feature films with 1984's "The Hit," starring John Hurt and Terrence Stamp. His television experience seems to have served him well. Rather than displaying an apparent visual style, Frears is a chameleon for whom the story determines the presentation. "All I need is a script that gets my imagination going," he says.

Not only has Frears survived and prospered in an industry prone to burnout and unceremonious dismissal, but he also seems happier than ever. "I like the whole business of putting together this large group of people and looking after them and working with them all to bring something to life," he says. "The writing, the filming, and the editing are all equally interesting to me."

This month, the "Dangerous Liaisons" director will be honored by the American Film Institute with a retrospective of his work in Los Angeles. While he has never directed movies that could be called blockbusters, Frears says his work is still all about the audience, not his own artistry.

When asked to name his own favorites among the many pictures he has directed, for example, Frears says only, "I know the films which touch people, which ones they like. And their liking it is very seductive."

Until recently, it appeared that Frears would next be directing the racetrack heist film, "Monkeypaw," pairing one of Hollywood's most famous married couples: Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. He directed Zeta-Jones in "High Fidelity."

But just a few days before the release of "Dirty Pretty Things," Frears suddenly found "Monkeypaw" canceled. The studio couldn't reach a deal with the actors. "It's all happened so fast that I don't yet know what to make of it, but it's very sad," he says. "It was going to be a treat."

Still, Frears is reluctant to complain for long. "I've been very, very lucky," the director says of his career. "I think I've had a charmed life." Indeed, a few minutes before the interview concludes, a knock comes to Frears's hotel room door. His glasses have been found.

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